“This is bad, Pavel,” Sabra said, crouched down in front of Jack. She had hold of his chin, turning his head left and right, gently, as if she was afraid she would break something – or that he would wake up. But Fisher saw nothing in Jack that said he was any closer to snapping out of his fugue.
Sabra cursed under her breath. She released Jack, standing up and stepping away from him. “Very bad,” she added as if correcting her earlier curse.
Fisher rubbed at his jawline, exposed beneath his mask. Always felt strange, to feel the sensation more from his cheek and jaw than from his fingers. “I’ll agree with you on that. This doesn’t seem like the choice you said he had to make.”
Sabra shook her head. “No,” she said. “That’s still coming. I hope.”
To Fisher, there was something ominous about that statement. It clashed with the baggy prison-grey clothes she was wearing as if she had only left Paradigm City the day before.
“We need him to snap out of this,” Sabra said, gaze still on Jack. “We need him on the board if we’re going to go after Monkey.”
“Sabra,” Fisher said, remembering tact. “We need more than cryptic statements.”
“I wish I could give you more,” she replied, turning to look at him. “But things have changed. Everything before us is so chaotic. Great shapes are moving in the abyss, and it is becoming harder and harder for me to find a way forwards. Something dark is coming, Pavel – and soon.”
“Not exactly less cryptic, Sab,” Fisher said, sighing. “But I think I get the picture.”
By the flap of their little tent, Sam clicked her tongue against her teeth. “So,” she said, drawing the word out, “No offense to both of you capes talking shop and all, but, I kind of feel like I’ve missed something here.”
Sabra had kept that a secret, Fisher knew. She tilted her head, looking past him so she could see Sam. “I can see the future, Sam.” The light caught the scar Bushranger had left her with.
“Huh.” Sam nodded, considering that. She reached into a pocket of her armored vest for her lighter and cigarette pack. “Y’know, that explains a few things,” she said, tapping another cigarette out into the palm of her hand.
“You think it’s a good idea to smoke around him?” Fisher asked, pointing to Jack.
Sam shrugged. “He hates cigarette smoke. Maybe it’ll wake him up enough so he can complain about it. And, hey, if the boss is going to get all cryptic and ominous, then I’m smoking my last pack.”
Fisher snorted out something of a laugh. “Yeah. Can’t argue with that. So, Sabra, what’s the plan?”
The comfortable gloom inside the tent shifted more into darkness as something moved into the gap between the flaps. Out of the corner of his eye, Fisher caught Sam’s hand dropping to the pistol at her waist. He turned, and there stood Ironheart.
It was funny. Even he could forget that she was two years younger than he was when her career had so utterly eclipsed his. Impel had maintained just enough fame that it had gone to his head. Ironheart had amassed so much that it had ceased to have meaning.
Fisher nodded to her, as if some secret code, and felt ridiculous. Even old capes as they were, they operated in different worlds. Back-lit as she was, the inlays of her prosthetic eyes made the up-and-down she gave him quite obvious.
“Out of retirement, Impel?” Ironheart asked.
“Yeah,” he replied, “At least for now.”
Her demeanor softened, just barely, only in the lines at the corners of her eyes. “I thought that was you in Paradigm,” she said. “So, I’m guessing you’ve been roped into this monkey business, too?”
“Since before it, actually. Long story. It’s almost made me feel young again.”
“Lucky. When I want to feel young, I have to replace some of my parts.”
Fisher snorted. “Hah. Well, speaking of business, is there anything we can help you with?”
Ironheart nodded. “In a manner of speaking. Everything has been sorted here, and this is now a SOLAR operation. Blueshift wants you and Fulcrum to be there as we plan our next moves.”
Blueshift. The name still gave Fisher the urge to grimace. Still, there was a saying about gift horses, and it counted even if they were offered to you by a particularly narcissistic person.
“Fine by me,” Fisher said, looking to Sabra.
“This is,” Sabra said.
Ironheart led the way to a conference room in the administrative section of the airport. All around them as they walked, technicians were beginning the long, awkward job of tearing out the old electronic hardware and replacing it – there was no other alternative to the presence of The Engineer or anything touched by him. How long would it take, Fisher wondered, to restore air travel to and from the city?
The conference room was remarkable in the sense that it somehow combined blandness with excess. Inside, the only two people were Incarnate and Blueshift. Sabra’s face lit up with her big, goofy smile and she took up position at Incarnate’s side – the switch between prophet and girl was so immediate that it just about gave Fisher whiplash. Whatever they were saying, he couldn’t hear and turned his attention to Blueshift.
Blueshift stood with his back to the door, hands clasped behind him, eyes on a satellite display, the world rendered in glowing outlines. But there was no way, Fisher knew, that Blueshift was not aware of him. The man was just as he remembered him, after all: swarthy, handsome, and as dangerously calm as a frozen lake. Whatever still lived under that surface was weird and alien.
And watch that you don’t break the ice. Fisher smiled. Mark would’ve said that.
Blueshift turned. “Thank you, Hannah,” he said and indicated the table and chairs with a sweep of his arm. “Please, take a seat.”
Fisher did so, and so did Sabra and Incarnate. Blueshift sat after them, but Ironheart remained at his flank, standing like a sentry. Fisher studied that image for a moment, working to place whatever machinations were at work behind the scenes. In his mind, echoes of a conversation that felt so long ago, of heroes who had been compelled to serve the world order of IPSA.
Ironheart belonged to that category, and everyone knew it. But something about the picture was strange – the pair of them had arrived in one of her craft, for one.
“We all know why we’re here,” Blueshift said. “The fugitive Elias Hawthorne has escaped. This time, however,” and he gestured to the satellite image behind him, “We can track him.”
On the screen, a single marker moved across the wireframe view of the world. Monkey and his stolen aeroshuttle.
“Where’s he headed?” Fisher asked.
“He is presently moving on a north-western heading.”
“Lot of places to the north-west of here.”
“That is true,” Blueshift stated. “For now, there is a pair of Australian fighters shadowing the stolen aeroshuttle. The two capes dispatched by Star Patrol – Kangarook and Shock Wallaby – were unable to maintain the supersonic pursuit and have since been recalled.”
“I don’t see why you haven’t blown him out the sky.”
“It would risk the loss of the Transcended artifact,” Ironheart said. “We will engage him on the ground, where we can recover it and secure it.”
“Right,” Fisher said. “So, back to my first question: where’s he going?”
“We have SOLARIA calculating the answer to that question as we speak,” Blueshift said. “At present, analytical estimates place his destination somewhere within Eastern Europe or West Asia. No further west than the warlord territories, and no further east than the border of China.”
“Are you sure about that?” Sabra asked. “I mean, he’s made it pretty clear that he intends to strike the heart of IPSA. If he’s heading to Europe in a supersonic craft… Well, Geneva is right there, y’know?”
“It is certainly a possibility, but unlikely. Geneva’s defense network has already been alerted. If he crosses over the warlord territories, he will be shot down. Less than ideal for our purposes, of course, but not unmanageable. We can assume that Hawthorne is aware of this.”
Fisher nodded. “And the academy in New York is so far outside SOLARIA’s estimate that he’s not heading there.” He looked to the map again, saw the band of territory that Blueshift had mentioned highlighted, studied it. Second by second, the band shifted or narrowed as the IPSA supercomputer calculated Monkey’s destination.
“There’s not much there, though,” Fisher said. “Most of those countries were wiped out during the Collapse. If he wants to make use of that weapon, there’s no infrastructure to take control of.”
“I disagree,” Blueshift said.
Fisher sighed. “So, where’s he going? This isn’t a game, Blueshift.”
“Isn’t it? Of course, this isn’t for the purpose of amusement. But,” Blueshift said, word hanging in the air as he looked to Sabra, “Games provide an opportunity to hone one’s skills. She knows the answer.”
Fisher looked to her, too. Sabra sat there, leaned towards Incarnate as she mulled something over, chewing at her lower lip. “I think I see it,” she said, but she shook her head. “But could he?”
Blueshift said nothing.
“Could he what?” Fisher asked.
“You are quite correct, Impel,” Blueshift said. “There is very little that Hawthorne would find usable within this projected zone. The answer is right in front of you, if you can remember your history.”
He did, of course. Fisher glanced to the map again. The area was so vast. So many empowered warlords refusing to bow to authority, sifting through the relics of ancient battlefields. Blasted sections of suburbia, beneath which lurked the secret labs and workshops of empowered scientists and tinkerers. Broken cities, put to the torch by mad robots. Ankara, caught forever in the split-second moment of a nuclear detonation…
“A lot of history to sift through,” Fisher said.
“Yes,” Sabra said. “But think, Pavel. If Monkey can’t go into civilization, he’s going to go through the ruins. He has a weapon that can take control of technological systems. What were the biggest systems in the world?”
Realization hit Fisher like an avalanche. “The Trimurti supercomputers.”
“And if he’s only going to get one shot at them,” Sabra insisted, “If he needed one which he thought could break IPSA’s back–”
“SHIVA,” Fisher breathed. “My God, he’s going to go after SHIVA.”
Around the table, everyone had weathered that thought better than him. And yet, remembering a history, a thought like a splinter in his brain. “But that’s impossible,” Fisher said, and he caught Ironheart’s electric gaze.
“You and the other Champions,” he said. “You killed SHIVA.”
Ironheart nodded. “Yes. But how sure can you be that you’ve actually killed a supercomputer the size of a city? My father drove a knife into SHIVA’s core. It stopped SHIVA’s rampage, and the rest of it was sealed beneath the mountain.”
Fisher rubbed at the bridge of his nose. The stupidity, the arrogance– “So you just left all that hardware crap lying around.”
“At the time, there was more than enough work to be done to pull the world out of the ashes of The Collapse. To properly dispose of SHIVA would’ve required a herculean effort. Eventually, clearing out the ruins wasn’t seen as a priority.”
“Except they did dismantle the other two.”
“Because they were still active,” Ironheart pointed out. “Because the powers-that-be believed they constituted a threat.”
Something about that statement… “But not you?”
The lines around Ironheart’s eyes intensified, but that was all.
“So,” Blueshift said, “SHIVA’s infrastructure still stands. Whether SHIVA is dead or merely stilled, something still lurks within the temple-corpse of the fallen god-machine. To answer your question, Fulcrum: yes, it is possible.”
Sabra sat up straighter. “Then what’re we going to do about it?”
“That,” Blueshift began, “Is a more difficult question.” He gestured to the display. “Incarnate, indicate and overlay regions claimed by the Concordiat within the past six months.”
Incarnate rose and stepped over to the display, entered commands. Here and there, large and small, areas of purple blossomed across the splayed-out world.
“Now,” Blueshift continued, “Highlight SHIVA’s ruins.”
Incarnate did so. There, just within the edge of a purple circle that covered much of the Caucasus mountains, was the red dot that indicated SHIVA’s remains.
“Son of a bitch,” Fisher said.
“Yes,” Blueshift said. “IPSA didn’t notice this at the time. Now, it presents a severe complication.” There was nothing reassuring about the fact he agreed with him.
Sabra glanced to them both. “What?” she asked. “Is that a problem? You all seemed to work together facing down The Engineer.”
“The enemy of our enemy in that circumstance,” Blueshift replied. “The Transcended present a threat to the goals of both parties, but those goals are diametrically opposed, and the Concordiat does not compromise. Aegis is attempting to negotiate passage as we speak, but it is unlikely that she will succeed.”
“So why not go anyway? The whole world is at stake! Why don’t we just tell them what’s going on?”
“Any breach of Concordiat territory by any member of the IPSA is met with an overwhelming, disproportionate response.”
Sabra frowned. “I thought they were pacifists.”
“They are,” Ironheart said. “Unless you break that one rule.”
“More importantly,” Blueshift said, “IPSA cannot allow Transcended technology to fall into the hands of Throne and his Concordiat.”
Sabra leaned forward, fists on the table, green eyes wide. “You’ll let Monkey wake up SHIVA for the sake of politics?”
“No. I don’t plan to let him do anything. This is merely data we must consider. If we approach the ruins of SHIVA by air, the Concordiat will strike us down. If we attempt to render the ruins unapproachable, or destroy them utterly, it will be interpreted as an act of war.”
“With Throne on one side,” Fisher said. “And you on the other.”
“Among many others,” Blueshift replied, voice smooth. “It would be a conflagration on a scale not seen since Lucifer was cast down from Heaven.”
Somehow, Fisher thought, the most unsettling thing wasn’t the prospect of such a thing, but how Blueshift described it. What did it mean when such a cold, rational man was reduced to religious metaphor?
Fisher looked to Blueshift’s shoulder, to Ironheart. “Your father was one of the founding members, Ironheart. Doesn’t that give you some kind of pull?”
“If I were a member of the Concordiat, I wouldn’t be standing here,” she replied. “The Concordiat was one of the few things he never shared with me. We are all IPSA-registered. The Concordiat will kill any of us, and all of us.”
“Can’t we revoke it?” Sabra asked. “The registration, I mean.”
“That defeats the point of IPSA’s database. Once you’re in the system, you’re in.”
At some point, Sabra had gotten up and started pacing about. Incarnate tracked her left and right, gaze unwavering. “Fuck,” Sabra said. “Fuck. There has to be something we can do. We can’t afford to sit here and wait.”
“For now,” Blueshift said, “We wait to hear the results of the negotiations. After that, we can entertain more reckless methods.”
Fisher agreed. He stared at the map, letting his mind wander, trace the path he had taken over the world. Poland, Europe, North America… There was Paradigm City, all alone in the South Pacific. His time there felt like it’d been a lifetime ago, and that he’d lived another life before that.
And then he had it.
“Blueshift,” he began, piecing together the memory of some half-remembered conversation. “Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I might have something.”
“Gladly. What’s the topic?”
“One of my specialties.”
Fisher nodded. “Even with something like SOLARIA crunching through all the data it can get, the signatures of empowered ability use are difficult to track down, right? Even for something like a point-to-point teleport. I think Aegis said a few hundred meters or so before you lose it in the background noise?”
“Correct,” Blueshift said, and Fisher knew he wouldn’t miss a beat. “Why?”
A smile split Fisher’s lips then. A youthful smile, a smug smile. Like he had stepped back into Impel’s younger body, just as he was about to nail some idiot villain to the wall.
“I know how we can get to SHIVA,” Fisher said. “See, I’ve got a friend who owes me a favor.”